Climate justice and the pandemic: intersections and opportunities

From the Colonial Countryside project by National Trust, which Creative Climate Chat speaker Raj Pal is working on

Written by Farah Ahmed

Over the past year, the world has been experiencing the social, medical and economic upheaval brought on by COVID-19, the painful and necessary rallying cry that Black Lives Matter, and the increasingly visible and tangible impacts of the climate and environmental emergency – extreme weather events, biblical locust swarms across Asia and Africa, devastating species loss, wildfires and deadly heat waves, amongst so much more. These phenomena are not separate from one another. They exist in a complex ecology of violence, which involves the extraction of resources, people and nature from land; and a system which places those resources, people and nature in competition with each other for profit.

Global crises like climate change, forced migration and the coronavirus feed off each other in unexpected ways. They create “perfect storms where people are hit way harder,” said Maarten Van Aalst, director of the Climate Center at the Red Cross and Red Crescent. – reported in Deutsche Welle

The pain and struggle that many people are enduring – amplified by these major events – tell us that this system doesn’t work. Black people and South Asians in the UK are significantly more likely to be severely impacted by COVID-19. People in the global south and marginalised communities in the global north are more affected by climate impacts, even though historically they have contributed the least carbon emissions.

Moreover, the science tells us we have just a decade to implement the sweeping and drastic changes we need to limit the worst effects of climate change. These events are exposing and challenging the global structures that govern our lives. We have an opportunity right now to radically transform our world in service of the wellbeing of our planet and people, and in pursuit of a just, green future for all.

Why climate justice?

To do so, we have to develop a deeper understanding of the path that has led us to this point. It is not an accident that marginalised groups and the global south are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 and climate change. It is the legacy of our colonial histories and how they continue to play out now through the structures of systemic racism and economic inequality. The toppling of statues commemorating slave traders, industrialists and colonial figures is symbolic of a real reckoning that we must engage with in our conversations of what climate justice actually means.

Economists estimate that an equivalent of $45 trillion was siphoned off from India during the era of British colonialism. When the slave trade was abolished, it was not the slaves who received reparations, but the 3000 families who saw themselves as their owners; they received £20 million – equivalent to £16.5 billion in today’s currency, and which UK taxpayers only finished paying back in 2015. Our industrialised world was built on colonial extraction, and many fossil fuel companies and banks are rooted in that injustice.

A significant number of our ruling elite can trace their wealth and power back to colonial exploitation. On the other hand, the communities who were exploited are now the same people fleeing their homes because super storms which used to be once-in-a-lifetime occurrences are now happening year on year. They are the people who are being poisoned by the toxic waste generated by industrial manufacturing. They are the communities where environmental activists are being murdered by governments and corporations at a higher rate than activists for any other single issue.

What sort of discussions should we be having?

The magnified voice of Black Lives Matter this year is a call to listen to what these communities can teach us about fighting against huge powerful systems and imagining radical new worlds. They have been doing it for decades and centuries, and their stories contain many solutions to our current crises, but are often unheard, or actively erased from a conversation dominated by more powerful voices with more pervasive myths and stories about our society, our economy and our planet.

This includes work by Raj Pal, Zamzam Ibrahim, Ron Whyte and Charise Johnson, who joined us for Creative Climate Chats, a series of conversations around culture and climate. These discussions were launched with the aim of seizing this opportunity to establish the systems and practices necessary to achieve a sustainable and equitable future for all. Raj shared his work with the National Trust and Colonial Countryside on uncovering the histories of land and artefacts, and how it relates to our current understanding of the British countryside. Zamzam spoke about organised student responses to climate justice, how that’s been disrupted in the current pandemic situation, and how we might come out of this situation with climate and environmental campaigning at the fore. Charise discussed her work connecting environmental policy-making, climate science and social justice across the UK and USA, as a policy adviser at the British Academy. Ron talked about how his work engaging young people with environmental injustice is informed by Indigenous philosophies and the Deep Ecology movement.

Our climate justice resources

Julie’s Bicycle’s The Colour Green podcast features artists and activists of colour speaking about their work and connections between climate justice, race, power, and inequality. To build on the legacy of this podcast, the conversations with Raj, Zamzam and Charise will become short episodes supported by Arts Council England, forming the second season of the podcast. In the first season of the podcast, hosted by Baroness Lola Young, we spoke to Ama Josephine Budge, Zena Edwards, Kareem Dayes and Judy Ling Wong. These episodes drew the focus to their lived experiences and creative responses to develop a holistic understanding of the causes of and solutions to the climate justice crisis.

All these conversations revolved around a range of issues in relation to climate justice, revealing the multitude of dimensions to the subject and the necessity of forming connections between different fields to address it. In the coming weeks, JB will be launching a climate justice hub to serve as a directory for all those working within the cultural sphere interested in exploring these issues in more depth. For now, we recommend you catch up with our introductory podcast season, The Colour Green and recent Creative Climate Chats episodes and share your questions and feedback with us.

Featured image: from the Colonial Countryside project by National Trust, which Creative Climate Chat speaker Raj Pal is working on. Photo by Adrian Tauss